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Texas football: Start of Charlie Strong era sees drop in attendance

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A better on-field product and improvements to the game-day experience will be necessary for the Longhorns to boost attendance to the levels seen during the national championship run of 2009.

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Attendance dropped all across the college football landscape in 2014 -- the lowest average overall in 14 years -- and the Texas Longhorns were not immune, despite the start of the Charlie Strong era.

While Texas wasn't among the schools suffering the six biggest drops in the Power Five conferences (though Kansas and Oklahoma State both achieved that dubious accomplishment), attendance fell to just over 94,000, down 8% from the national championship run of 2009, according to CBS Sports. That number is roughly 6,000 short of capacity.

Regime change apparently didn't excite the fan base -- quite the opposite, actually -- and the late-season run didn't get orangebloods through the gates, either.

Meanwhile, over in College Station, the departure of Johnny Manziel was offset by the continued excitement about the move to the SEC to fill the increased capacity at Kyle Field and raise attendance by 21%.

In an interview with Orangebloods, Texas athletic director Steve Patterson spoke about the challenges that the Longhorns face in drawing fans to the stadium:

The reality is, people have to feel like they are getting good value for their investment of time, emotion and money. When they go to an event, they got great options all over this state, and this city, for how they spend their entertainment time. We'll continue to work on improving it.

The competition has increased for the attention of local fans in recent years -- with the expansion of ACL to two weekends, a home game often falls on one of those weekends, there are Formula 1 races in October that have overlapped with home games over the last two years, and keeping the rotating Thanksgiving game in Austin every year provides major conflicts for all fans, students in particular.

Plus, as many have noted, the cost of attending games has risen, all while the ability to watch games on increasingly larger and more affordable televisions has made staying at home more appealing.

So Patterson has brought in consultants from the Disney Institute and 10 Fold Entertainment to help improve the game-day experience.

One of the major changes for the 2014 season was the Mighty Fine Longhorn Liftoff, otherwise known as the Jet Pack Guy, which mostly drew widespread criticism. Interestingly enough, it's also something that Michigan did under former athletic director Dave Brandon.

Hey, at least Patterson wasn't giving away free tickets for the purchase of Coca-Cola products, right?

Of course, there's always next year.

The planned improvements for the experience at DKR will come on several levels, according to Patterson:

Some of these things will take some time and capital, so improving sound systems, improving WiFi, some of those things will take some tweak in the culture.

With no WiFi available to all fans at the game and often poor cell-phone reception as the result of overloaded towers, Texas is lagging well behind in that regard -- for those interested, it's difficult to post status updates to Facebook or interact with fellow fans on Twitter during the games and especially at halftime.

Baylor, for instance, spent several million dollars on WiFi in new McClane Stadium, as well as an in-game app that includes a host of features. Both of those elements set the modern trend that was started at places like the new Sporting Kansas City stadium.

The culture tweaks include the involvement of the student body, which was noticeably absent during the Thanksgiving game, one of the reasons why there were calls from this site and others to abolish that tradition and move the game to the weekend.

Patterson has been involved in discussions with students and other groups, noting that energy from the student section tends to increase the energy through the entire stadium.

But with increased tuition prices at Texas, some students have been priced out of season tickets that now cost nearly $200 apiece, with extra season tickets over $400.

As much as Patterson wants to streamline the athletic department budget at the expense of students and faculty, those decisions may ultimately hurt attendance, which in turns hurts the game-day experience, not to mention the ill will the decision to move faculty from the ticket options provided to students has fostered among faculty.

Perhaps starting beer and wine sales at DKR could help offset some of those costs to provide better value for a huge core of fans the Longhorns need in the stadium on fall Saturdays.

Georgia found another alternative -- reducing the number of student tickets and starting a young alumni program that allows recent graduates to purchase season tickets without the costly donations that often accompany such plans.

The school has certainly done it's part from a scheduling standpoint to minimize the loss of attractive home games like Texas A&M and Nebraska with the non-conference schedule, but there are still far fewer draws in the Big 12 than there would have been in, say, the SEC West.

Plus, with conference realignment likely off the table with the grant of rights and specter of the Longhorn Network hanging above the program's head, the scheduling changes will be limited to a non-conference schedule that is mostly set for the next decade and the possibility of switching the Thanksgiving game.

Through the struggles of the end of the Mack Brown era, one of the major questions was whether or not demand for Texas football tickets was inelastic enough to survive the on-field issues.

The answer to that, even with the potentially energizing new hire, is a strong statement that interest in the Texas football program, at least as it pertains to attending games, is quite elastic.

Winning can solve some of those issues, and Patterson can work on the game-day experience, but the reality remains that the Longhorns, as well as college football in general, are facing some significant questions about the future.

Brandon summed it up pretty well to CBS Sports.

"We're trying to find ways to keep younger people engaged," Brandon said, "because longterm it's going to be a problem."